Thursday, 18 July 2024

American Life in Poetry: Land Ho

Kwame Dawes. Courtesy photo.

This poem will be my statement for a rather abrupt and unexpected ending to my role as the editor of American Life in Poetry.

The poem is one of resilience — the resilience of my ancestors and those that carry the fact of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as a defining moment in our making.

It is also a poem about resilience, about looking hopefully, even if with some caution, to the future, and I believe that Marguerite Harrold and Ber Anena who have been laboring with me to make American Life in Poetry a weekly occasion, share this spirit.

My great hope is that the legacy left by Ted Kooser will be continued into the future.

LAND HO
By Kwame Dawes

I cannot speak the languages
spoken in that vessel,
cannot read the beads
promising salvation.

I know this only,
that when the green of land
appeared like light
after the horror of this crossing,

we straightened our backs
and faced the simplicity
of new days with flame.
I know I have the blood of survivors

coursing through my veins;
I know the lament of our loss
must warm us again and again
down in the belly of the whale,

here in the belly of the whale
where we are still searching for homes.
We sing laments so old, so true,
then straighten our backs again.


American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©1996 by Kwame Dawes, “Land Ho” from Requiem (Peepal Tree Press Ltd., 1996) Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2022 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Kwame Dawes, is George W. Holmes Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.

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